5 tips for saving on groceries

By Tom Tennant

There are some items you will never cut entirely from your budget, and your grocery bill is probably one of them. For most people, regular trips to the grocery store are a fact of life.

By most estimates, a reasonable household budget should allocate 10 to 15 percent of funds for groceries. That's roughly $600-$1000 a month for a family earning $80,000 a year. But it's often hard for families to stick to their budget when it comes to buying food. One of the main reasons why is because food is not a fixed cost. Food prices fluctuate, and accordingly so do food budgets.

So how do you cut back on spending and still feed your hungry family? The best way is to understand how grocery stores operate and how to navigate the aisles. Beyond coupons, here are five ways to help you get the most from your budget.

Start a log

Consider creating a log to track the cost of regularly purchased items. Most grocery items change prices regularly, especially perishables such as fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy, which are frequently affected by factors such as the weather.

By keeping track of prices, shoppers can determine seasonal patterns and market fluctuations and shop accordingly. Better still, shoppers can use the log to compare the price of the same item at different stores, or check sale prices against regularly advertised prices to see if they're really such a bargain.

Shop more than one store

Unless you're driving miles away, shopping at more than one store can produce substantial savings.

Consider which stores offer the best deals on certain items. Discount markets often offer good prices for off-brand staples such as cereal, bread, milk and eggs. Specialty grocery stores are a great place for premium items such as coffee, spirits, organic fruits and vegetables and meat. And warehouse-club stores offer substantial savings on bulk household items such as toilet paper, dishwasher detergent, school lunch snacks, soda and more.

Comparing prices and understanding which stores offer the lowest prices for the specific items you're looking for is key. It takes some extra effort to make the extra trips, but the savings are well worth it.

Pay attention to the small print

See that five-candy-bars-for-$5 deal? Don't bust your budget by get sucked into buying more than you need.

Many shoppers assume that to get the sale price, they have to purchase five candy bars, even if they only want one or two. But in many cases, the actual deal specifies that no matter how many you buy, you can still get the "deal" price of $1. You just have to read the small type.

Buy the bag

Eating healthy can be a challenge for the cost-conscious family. Fresh produce can be expensive compared to other options, but sometimes you can find savings if you skip the loose items and buy bagged produce. This is because packaged produce is priced by the unit (rather than by the pound) and sometimes the difference will go in your favor.

Making sure you're saving on bagged produce will take a little diligence. In the case of bagged fruit, the weight must be printed on the bag, so you can rest assured that a 2-pound bag of apples weighs at least 2 pounds. But many grocers will include an extra piece of fruit or vegetable to assure that they're meeting the weight requirement, which means your 2-pound bag probably weighs more. If you really want to save, weigh a number of bags and see which is the heaviest. You won't pay more, but you will get more for your money.

Keep it simple

Finally, obey some of the simplest grocery shopping rules around. Make a grocery list and stick to it. Don't shop when you are hungry. Buy store brands rather than name brands.

By paying attention to fluctuating prices and making a shopping plan, most shoppers can save substantially at the grocery store. And what you save at the grocery store can go right into your long-term savings plan.